The Black Book Thrills While Messing With Your Mind and Heart

The Black Book Thrills While Messing With Your Mind and Heart

The only thing I knew about The Black Book prior to seeing it was that it was a “psychological chess match” about a college student, Colin Archer (David Siciliano), who leaves a poem/suicide note for his professor to find, and the subsequent attempts to save him. Sounds straightforward, but the plot ended up being far more complex and one of the most gloriously twisted plays that I have had the privilege of experiencing.

Written and directed by Phil Blechman, this play compacted a lot of information into 99 minutes. Everything felt like a race to the finish; a countdown to something awful if a character neglected to make the right move. Every chess piece can move forward, but not all can go back. White goes first, but something black and bleak always follows. And with a young woman (Antonieta Pereira) roaming around in a straitjacket for the duration of the play, you are constantly aware that something is seriously wrong… even if you can’t quite figure out what.

During some scene changes, I overheard other audience members asking each other if they knew what was going on. I too felt a sense of confusion as to how the characters were truly connected, but prided myself in catching on to some of the visual cues that helped the pieces line up by the end of the play. Ann Beyersdorfer’s scenic design was gorgeous. The set was an actual chessboard, allowing the characters to advance and retreat as needed. Repetition was key, and it was Jennifer O’Brien’s costume design that allowed me to keep up with the mind games. (212. Suspenders. Trees. Dogs.) At times I might have been a move or two behind, but the more I think about it, days later, the more everything makes sense. Well played, Blechman. Well played.

I was very much in awe of the entire ensemble, but it was Siciliano’s emotional and physical range as Colin Archer that I found especially mesmerizing. Archer was haunting, yet haunted; scarily commanding in some scenes but heartbreakingly vulnerable in others. The way he and some of the other characters threw themselves about the stage with such ease was as admirable as it was alarming. That kind of synchronicity created such an unnerving sense of urgency that I wanted to rise from my seat and offer assistance as much as I was glued where I sat because I didn’t want to miss a moment. It’s amazing what terrible things the body and mind can do to itself and others.

While the subject matter of mental illness and harm (self or otherwise) wasn’t entirely earth-shattering, the presentation of it was; at least to me. The frantic changes in pace coupled with the dark, intimate setting of the theater made it feel like this play was being performed inside the mind of someone who needed help and the audience couldn’t do anything about it but watch. I haven’t been that engaged seeing a show in a while and appreciated having to actively think about what was going on and the challenge of taking in new information while still trying to process moments that had already passed.

The Black Book gave me similar feelings to when I saw the movie The Prestige for the first time, in that I immediately wanted to see the show again now that I knew how it ended. A word to the wise, when an unstable narrator demands you pay attention, you really should listen.

I attended The Black Book among a more mature (age-wise) audience but know this play would be perfect for the millennial crowd as well. Make sure to see this show with a friend because you’ll want to break down every beat afterward.

The Black Book is playing through November 22 at the Sargent Theater at 314 W. 54th St. Tickets are $35.

Photo: From left, Gabe Templin, Sean Borderes, David Siciliano © Sara Edwards

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